Leaving the land of steel.. With no matches.. Or steel.

Time goes by really fast and no matter where you go you seem to make a bigger impression than you intended or really ever thought you would…

The last few days in Cherepovets have gone better, granted I really had to fight the desire to hermit up in my apartment. However, every time I actually got out and got active the time really passed by twice-fold and much more pleasantly than I thought it would. The camp was really enjoyable the last few days. The kids played a ton of games and I think also quite enjoyed it.

Wednesday was an “American potluck” theme. The kids all brought goodies, mainly sweets, and I made forty plus cookies. We sang songs related to food and I taught them the spaghetti and meatball song, where the meatball rolls through the town; they enjoyed that one. I also taught them apples and bananas, where the vowels change with each verse. I think they also enjoyed that one, as in the end they practically had it memorized. They then played a whole bunch of food relating games with blind folds that involved stuffing bananas into each others faces and eating food with no hands. They were really good sports, though the same kids participate in almost all the competitions. That evening I went to a cafe with a new acquaintance. Afterwards we went to the theater and saw the most depressing play. Essentially a 21 year old girl comes upon keys to a woman’s apartment and invites some guy there that she meets at the club. He ends up stealing all the things in the apartment, but the girl’s in loveeeee. The owner, a middle aged woman, ends up returning home early and unexpectedly and sees her apartment a mess with some unknown girl in sexual pjs. They take turns threatening each other with calling the police, pulling out a gun, and tying each other up. Then they have conversations about life, and become friends. They end up drinking vodka. The young girl pretends to drink while the fifty year old women gets hammered, forgives the young girl, and takes her in as a daughter. It all ends when the young girl decides to leave. The woman doesn’t want her to go and shoots her. Yeah, happy Wednesday.

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Thursday was a game day. They split up into small groups and rotated game stations. They really enjoyed this day, as they continued to ask me today, “can we play UNO?!”. I taught them how to play Jenga, however our game had a twist. On all the blocks I wrote questions or commands. These included everything from calling your mom (which I ended up getting at 3am Michigan time), jog around the room, throw the block across the room, and recite the alphabet backwards. After lunch we played some simple outdoors games. At the end of the day we went to a local center for the elderly. Essentially this place didn’t have elderly people in in, but was rather a place they could go if they needed help or food. The kids had made Buranovskie Babushi dolls for them (the Babushki who took second place in Eurovision). So we really didn’t meet any elderly people, but just the directors of the center. The kids preformed some dances and showed off their musical talents. I said some words in English and they translated for me. Once again I spent my evening in a cafe, conversing with one of the employees from the youth center as time passed by unnoticed.

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Friday I gave a “lecture” on American slang, teaching them some fun words that my brother’s age group uses, such as ‘tight’, ‘ill’, etc. Even I had to refer to the Internet and conversations with my brother on Facebook, as in reality I am so disconnected from the general register of our youth. But, it was enjoyable describing the words to the kids and learning how to reconnect with my youngest bro. After that the kids had a talent show where they sang, danced, and showed off other various talents. They then showered me with gifts, which was naively unexpected by me. The Russians have a strict tradition of gift-giving, so I should have been well prepared, but I was not. See the picture below. So, as I was planning to leave with less things, I ended up leaving with two extra bags. Of course. After the performance the ‘workers’ gathered for pizza and tea and I was presented with yet another awesome, homemade gift. Returning home, I cleaned, packed, and headed off to my host, Anna’s home with Sasha, a new acquaintance. We had dinner, wine, and toasts, after which Sasha escorted me to the train station where I’m full and tired and really ready for St. Petersburg.

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The makers of steel… And matches.

I’ve been in Cherepovets since Friday. I’d like to make some witty comments and have a very witty post. I’ll try to do so, but I have to admit that coming here after Astrakhan was a very poorly thought out idea.

It was a lot harder to leave Astrakhan then I thought it would be. I had a wonderful last night. And despite the mosquitos, I some how ended up getting all of my friends and good acquaintances in one place.

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I then flew, absolutely exhausted, to St Petersburg. With an enormous amount of help from my friends, I got rid if my luggage and was fed and beveraged. After wandering around Piter and catching up, my friend and I then raced to the train station and accidentally got lost in the parking ramp. As I was emptying my things from her car, she tells me I have ten minutes until my train leaves. Neither of us had been to this station before and had no idea where to go. I start shoving things into my carry on, completely forgetting some necessary items and we start running.. Shes got my purse and I have my heavy carry on in one hand and my jenga in the other. Obvious necessity. I almost didn’t make my train, as when we got there the stewardess yelled at me saying I had to go register my online tickets, naturally what one would think to do with an online-purchased ticket. However, the gracious lady in the next cart, the one I was supposed to be in, let me in without questions. Thank you kind lady.

I arrived the next morning in Cherepovets, greeted by a very enthusiastic and nice Anna, who is a professor at the local university and director of the camp at the local youth center. Within an hour I was on a bus to some little village-museum between Cherepovets and Vologda. Here we toured original wooden homes that had been imported from different parts of Russia. It was quite reflective of the wooden village Kizhi, located north of St. Petersburg. The most interesting part was the master classes they held. I learned the original, Russian painting technique that is on a lot of the dishes and other souvenirs; some of the students made birch ornaments; others carved little animals out of wood.

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So, Cherepovets eh?
Yeah. I thought the same thing.
It’s located here:

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Or what I like to call, the middle of nowhere. They like to call it provincial. I wont argue.
So yeah, what’s here? Well at first I was all excited about matches (which I still haven’t seen here, actually). However, what I didn’t know was that they have a massive steel plant. Essentially, the plant is the same size as the city and employes somewhere around 150,000 people; the city has about 315,000. Supposedly the steel company, Severstal’ bought out a Detroit plant not to long ago. Everyone and their mother works there.

What else? Oh, the general region is famous for their dairy products. And there’s a natural spring nearby.. Somewhere. But the city itself is so provincial in so may ways. The people look so much more Russian than I’m used to. The cars are much different, even than Astrakhan. The shops are sparse and less famous. There are so many more drunks and drug addicts than what I saw on the streets of Astrakhan, or even St. Petersburg. In their free time, people park their cars in the street and just stand there, maybe drinking, but definitely smoking and talking, and smoking, and talking and smoking.. Oh, there’s also a strip, on the river embankment; yeah you know like the one in Grand Haven where you drive you car back and forth, playing your loud music, revving your engine, showing off for the ladies. They have one here, except it’s no longer than my driveway.

On a positive note, the city is really clean, despite it’s lack of trash cans. There’s a lot of greenery and some really luscious parks. Also the roads are significantly better than in Astrakhan.. So for example there is only one big pot hole per kilometer, rather than say, 10. And they have some cool bridges here, unique to only three cities in Russia. A few pictures:

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What have I done here? Or, what the hell am I doing here?
Well, so far I’ve done a lot of sight seeing. This included riding a Soviet ferris wheel that scared the shit out of me, followed by one of those amusement rides that my stomach really hates, followed by a really shitty stolovaya, or canteen, followed by ice skating, which I really suck at. My guide did a really good job of not listing to my “no”s.. I suppose I should be used to this by now. But in all honesty it turned out fine and I enjoyed it all more than I expected… except for that stupid carnival ride.

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June 1st was the holiday Day of the Protection of Kids. Yes, official holiday. So there were lots of weird costumes all around town, some competitions, games, and a creepy clown in the stolovaya approaching kids while the “…what the fuck” song was playing in the background. Did I mention my love for Russian paradoxes?

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There’s also been the camp. Really it’s been quite an easy week. The camp starts at 10 and ends at 2pm. I don’t even need to participate in all of it, but just give some lectures, play some games, and help provide ideas. Tomorrow I don’t even have to go in until 12. The kids are great, as always. They’re probably 14-15. Some of them speak pretty well, or at least are not afraid. Others don’t speak a word, and many are really scared to talk, or play games, or really do anything. Today they created these really great skits based on some fairy tails. Tomorrow were having an American potluck and I successfully baked forty cookies while listening to a killer Russian folksong on repeat and having an amazing conversation with two locals, my age.

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That says welcome.. Rikki Brown. I just noticed it today.

All in all I have to admit that it’s really hard being here, and that my heart is really not into it. I don’t do well in limbo-land; I left Astrakhan with a really heavy heart and I’m eagerly awaiting both Piter and Turkey. Being here I’ve really felt homesick and would prefer to just stay in my apartment, rather than do anything at all. I miss all my friends, a lot; everyone of them, wherever they may be in the world. I think part of me just wants to seclude myself in this little cyber world with them so as to avoid meeting anymore wonderful people whom I must then, once again, leave behind. Unfortunately, I think it’s too late for that already.

Leaving Astrakhan…

It hasn’t really hit me that I’m leaving yet. Perhaps because things have been so crazy recently. Ive downsized my things to two boxes that I’m sending home and a suitcase and a half of belongings. I gave away five bags and a suitcase things.

I spent an hour at the post office just to mail two boxes. It’s these sort of things that really exhaust you, even if you’re just standing in line.. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Last marshrutka ride in Astrakhan. Last taxi ride. Last walk in the Naberezhnaya… I mean perhaps not my very last but more or less its really weird, and if I were to come back, things will never be exactly as they are now.

I’ve concluded that I hate these exchanges. I mean it’s a great opportunity to see a place that you maybe would have never even dreamed of going to. But then you get here, and you get used to it, and as much as you really hate certain aspects of the city or of life here, you more or less get used to it. However, the worst part of it all are the people. You come here, you meet people and shove them into your life, and vice versa and then time flies by and the next thing you know you’re ripped out of there lives and they out of yours. Just like that. And it all happens so fast and time, life gives you no time to react to this or to fight it. You sit there saying, “this is it”, wishing you would have done more; done things a bit differently. Of course you can’t dwell on this, but nevertheless you do.. It’s inevitable. Fuck this is it.

On a much lighter note, I must keep in mind that I’m off on new adventures and to do other things, meet other people, and well have this same kind of experience all over again.

Next up: Cherepovets, a small city located between Moscow and St Petersburg, a bit to the east. Famous for…

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Russia: where nothing ever goes according to plan.

Things happen in Russia that don’t need to happen; but they just do, whether you like it or not.

Our washing machine is located in our kitchen. So I went to do laundry, and opened the door, of course. Our kitchen door has no handle, so you can’t shut it too hard or you have to stick your finger into the key hole and pull to open it, which kind of sucks. However, today both big windows in the kitchen were open and a hefty breeze was coming through (though I don’t know how, as I’m two windows down and have NO breeze). So I walk in, close the door, and put my laundry in, start the machine, all as I usually do. I go to leave and realize the door is stuck, really stuck. I try to pull at it with my finger, no luck. I try these little rubber pieces to the laundry machine, no luck. I try a chair leg, didn’t fit. Of course our kitchen has nothing helpful and no one really uses it except to smoke, boil milk, and now do laundry (we just got machines maybe in March.. Oh and get this, they had machines all throughout the dorm last year and at the end of the year they took them away, hoping the students would forget about them so that the ladies working in the dorm could just take them home. Oh the stories we have from this damn dorm..) SO, I sort of waited, starting to get a bit worried because I realized I could be stuck there forever, until someone came in to smoke at midnight… Thankful the migrant workers saved me. They’re remodeling the room next to the kitchen for an Iranian family that’s coming. They walked by and I yelled for them to please open the door. They pushed it open and the look on their faces was so confused and even a bit scared. I thanked them gratefully. I will now excuse their loud, obnoxious drilling at all, yet random hours and days.

In other news I have major mosquito bites all over my body. The Mosquitos here are some breed of crazy and can supposedly bite through clothing, which I now fully believe. It doesn’t help that outside our dorm the water pipe has a major leak, and I mean like a fluid stream coming out of it. It’s been leaking since Feb, which probably explains our lack of hot water. But recently, it’s become the hot spot for mosquito reproduction. Yesterday they “worked” on it for a bit and now it just drips. #progress

Friday night we went to this beer pong tournament at a local bar and hung out with the local hipsters, average age: 21. If anything, the last few months here have made me feel really old and I seem to find myself at events like these with people way younger than me. Also, these people do not know how to play beer pong, or more like they do not follow any rules including the elbow rule; they practically were shooting from half table, defeating so many purposes of the game. Us foreigners were playing and they kept trying to move the our cups, in the middle of our game. I did a bit of yelling. They also had these really crappy tables; on one it was written “Astrakhan Association of Beer Pong”. This place is killing me.

Saturday we went to one of the clubs, where I had my last moment of endurance for the same twenty songs that clubs, or the DJs put on repeat. Then they brought all the local “journalists” on stage, thanking them for their wonderful pictures. All at once they all started snapping away, flashing lights everywhere. This was hilarious, mainly because Russians have a good obsession with photography, taking pictures of everything, everywhere. There’s this one company throughout Russia called Geometria, and they attend all local events taking nine million pictures. You can’t avoid them if you want to, and often you do.

Pev-Pong

Paparazzi in Dair

Sunday I went to one of my student’s house and her mom taught me how to make Borscht… Watch out America, Borscht is coming..

Monday I gave away four bags and one suitcase of my belongs to a homeless shelter.
There’s still more to give away.

A market for educational necessities.. And that doesn’t mean books.

A lack in writing results from a change in mentality.
I suppose things have just changed around here. It seems that things that weren’t typical have now become typical, or that perhaps I have simply learned to just deal with certain things. I’m tired; I’m worn out. Regardless of a churning desire to leave immediately, I already clearly understand that upon leaving I will greatly miss this place – the horribly wonderful paradox that is Russia, and by Russia I mean non-Piter, non-Moscow Russia, because after living here I’ve realized how big the difference is and how wide the distance from reality.

While things are winding up, the work is still piling up. I took up an editing gig for the director of the Department of Foreign Languages. I am editing a 70 page text on the Kremlins of Russia: Pskov, Uglich, and Astrakhan. Needless to say, whoever did the Russian to English translation was really lazy, and I’m only on page four.

Things have almost ended completely at the university, even though according to some (mainly colleagues), we still have lots of time left. However the halls are bare, over twenty students have already taken their exams and many have left for home or America on work-study. I’ve been holding a lot more casual lessons. I’ve shown most of my students Jazz Chants and played Apples to Apples – a huge hit.

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Over the last few weeks I have had a lot of personal issues with the university system. This is a system based on personal likes, dislikes, and desires, where regardless of how much students do or do not work, their fate is determined by higher authorities. I’m quite sick of teachers sitting in the faculty room, gossiping about students, whom I know well and whom I know have a lot of potentional but are brought down by this stifling system and its teachers, who are not here to encourage learning, but rather to force what they think is best for the student.

Its quite common for students to be able to buy their diplomas, exams, papers, pay off teachers for grades, etc. There is one student in the dorm who joked that he can’t write his own diploma because he’s too busy writing others’. There was some market today at our university and we joked about the ability to buy there all the exams, teachers, etc that you may need at the end of your year. But that’s the reality of Russia and there have been countless examples of teachers not liking students and giving them bad grades just to get money from them.

Unfortunately, my department is not such. I say unfortunately because I’ve recently learned the necessity to be able to buy these things. Sometimes you just can’t control who likes you. One of my favorite students had this problem and now he doesn’t know if he’ll return back to the university, or even Russia. He planned to go to America for work and travel this summer. He had his flight, visa, everything. He asked to take his exams early and one of my colleagues wouldn’t let him. Why? Because she doesn’t like him. This happened literally three days before he was supposed to leave. She controlled everything; if she didn’t allow him, then no one else would. And she didn’t. So what was he to do? He couldn’t bribe her, and bribing anyone else would do no good. If he didn’t take his exams then upon returning next year he would have to join the army or enroll in another department. Conceptually, I got so mad about this situation. He’s one of my mot talented students. Not that he gets good grades necessarily, he has average grades, but he has the actual passion for English and American culture and he has the ability to think, which so many students lack here. Perhaps it’s for the better that this happened… He can just stay in America; if only it was that easy..

What do you get when you mix Rap, Four Leaf Clovers, Fulbrighters, and Camels?

Answer: Rikki’s past week in Russia.

There is just so much to discuss and I need to go about it in an orderly and chronological fashion.

Last Friday I attended the concert of the popular rap group Kasta.  In all honesty I love this group and listen to their music quite often, but I hesitantly went to the concert thinking it would be really wild and crazy, or something.

It rocked.. I mean seriously it was really good. The place was full, though it’s a small venue and typically a night club. These guys are talented. Not only do they write (okay perhaps they don’t write their music, I’m not sure, but whatever), but they can roll those Russian words. And they had a really good show: playing with the crowd, conversing amongst themselves, telling jokes, and at one point making everyone crouch down and then jump when they counted to three.  They all have nicknames, or “show” names, and many of the attendees knew them.  I’d overall everyone seemed to enjoy the show and rocked out; except that typical girl next to me who looked as bored as ever and just sort of stood there and starred.  Hey, perhaps she was having a good time.

In case you’re interested to hear what Russian rap sounds like:

 

Last Saturday we headed to the local pub: “Bier Haus”, where they were having a slightly tardy St. Patrick’s Day party.  They had Irish dancing, live music with a killer violinist, and some trivia. It was a typical Russian event celebrating some foreign culture. We had a good time eating, having a few beers, and hanging out. The band was also really good and I impressed with the singer’s English. Afterwards I met him (Ilya) and found out he had spent three consecutive summers in South Dakota on work/travel and had an American girlfriend; killer American accent. Russians: this is how you learn English

   

  

On Sunday morning I left for Rostov to meet some Fulbrighters on a Community College exchange.  I was supposed to escort one of them back to Astrakhan and help him out in town.  I happily went, as I had never been to Rostov before.  I spent two days sort of wandering around, took an exam, hung out with Oksana, and ate some really good food.  Oh Fulbright.  The city was nice, from what I saw.  A great embankment, an enchanted pedestrian street filled with little cafes and shops.  Oksana grew up here, but was back now only for the first time in five years.  She said a lot had changed and it was weird for her to have returned to her hometown after so long.  The city is a lot bigger than Astrakhan, over double the size; yet, the difference was both visible and unnoticeable.  What I did notice was the increase in shops and variety.  They had a lot of chain restaurants, which are almost non-existant in Russia and so many different types of shops and cafes.  Yet the feel of the city was similar, and I viewed Rostov as almost a more developed, hillier Astrakhan.  I would have liked to spend a few more days there, as I feel there’s  a lot I missed.

 

  

More pictures can be found here, courtesy of the wondrous Oksana!

Last but not least I traveled on Saturday to this amazing little plot of land they call Saray Batu.  It’s located two hours to the north of Astrakhan and in the middle of the steppe.  On the way there we had traditional Easter cakes, or Kuhlich.  It’s like this mini pastry, really dry with rasins inside it and covered with frosting and sprinkles.  Not my type of cake.

Evgenia cutting the Kuhlich

We then stopped by a Muslim cemetery. I’m not sure what it is about them, but after my first visit to St. Petersburg in 2007 and my first visit to some of the most gorgeous cemeteries, I fell in love with them.  Really they are just the coolest places, especially foreign ones.  The ones in Russia have great tombstones with clear, colorful pictures, or interesting handmade grave markers.  In St. Petersburg I broke off from our tour group and just wandered amongst them, checking out all of the artwork and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.  Although at bit ironic, these really are the most calm of places.  I had never been to a Muslim cemetery before, so I was very excited when we “ran into” this one.

      

  

Essentially, Saray Batu is a recreated Mongol village as it would have been in the 13th century.  Now they use the location to film movies. It really was just placed in the middle of no where.  We were driving though this road that goes through the steppe, then our driver just turned off into what looked like a big, dead field and suddenly this structure emerged into view. First we toured the tents, one which is filled with all the goodies of the 13th century: pots, blankets, rugs, etc.

   

Then we toured the village, which was really neat and so real-like I quickly understood why they chose to film there.  I didn’t quite understand what the village was made of of, but it looked at though it was straw then covered with clay.  It was really dusty there, so clay would have been reasonable.  The other American and I noted how it reminded us of a Pueblo in the South West, as the architecture seemed similar.  Granted, I have never been there so perhaps I am way wrong, but that’s the impression I got.   A nice gentleman gave us a mini-tour, showing us the water mill and the slave trade locations.  There was a couple in traditional 13th century gear, but they really didn’t look like Mongols so we didn’t stick around to take pictures with them.

    

    

  

When we first arrived at Saray Batu I noticed them immediately… CAMELS. I was psyched.  I still remember when I first researched Astrakhan and I read something about camels being nearby.. I had found them!  After touring the village we made our way to the camels and I rode around on for a bit, as did Virginia.  The camel’s grazing area overlooked a beautiful river that was calling for me to swim in it.

       

Riding the camel was a weird experience.  Her name was Masha and she was definitely not comfortable.  She was really nice though, or I suppose well trained; she shed worse than a dog.   After checking this off the bucketlist, we had a great lunch of home-made plov and shashlik and headed back to town quite satisfied and relaxed…

A Sweet (Surprising!) Return!


I’m back! AGAIN.

I haven’t had a working personal computer in over three weeks, which has been frustrating for the blog-o-sphere, and other such endeavors.  However, I am now back in action, and life has been packed full of all sorts of good stuff, mainly classes. If last semester was leaving me somewhat bored and looking for things to do, this semester has forced me to deny private lessons and school trips as I just don’t have time.

So the month of March consisted of an overwhelming amount of lessons, a gap in my social life, and slush, mud, and snow.  The month of April started out with a great trip to Ufa, +15 degrees and sun, and a sudden perk in things to do on the weekend. Yet it also brought some unforeseen work; thus, I’ve ben struggling to efficiently manage the two.

UFA – it was this amazing gathering of fifteen Fulbrighters.  Ufa is located in the Bashkir Republic; here is a clear, concise map:

Coming from a southern city (I use this phrase with enjoyment as it now actually holds true) I was COLD. and being from Michigan I suppose I don’t often say that.  Anyways, regardless of the weather we had an amazing weekend, which can be summed up by bonding with our director, hanging out in the village of Krasnii Klyuch and trudging through the slush, watching an amazing performance of native Bashkir dance,  and seeing the most wonderful play ever – in Bashkir.


In other news, I returned to Astrakhan today from Rostov (more on that later as well), and found out that Astrakhan has erupted!  Essentially, in the March 4 elections a certain gentleman named Shein ran for the mayor of Astrakhan and lost to a member of United Russia.  However, Shein has declared a “Hunger Strike” against corruption and has now not eaten for more than four weeks.  Meanwhile, his supporters have found corruption in 17 voting districts through out Astrakhan.  Ironically enough, they need 25%, or approximately 51 districts to appeal the vote and the authorities are not granting them access to any more film.  People have become worried for Shein’s health and are angry at the restrictions on transparency imposed by the authorities.  SO what happens? People come to Astrakhan… lots of people.  The vkontakte group alone has over 700 members and there are messages regarding train tickets and free couches to sleep on.  Navalny, the famous anti-corruption blogger himself has made his appearance, and one of my students got her picture with him. Unfortunately I was still in Rostov and missed this meeting!  If you’re interested, my source was the following article by Kevin Rothrock: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/04/10/russia-astrakhan-becomes-oppositions-new-rallying-cause/

Also Navalny’s instagram has some staggering photos of Astrakhan:

inside the kremlin

he got called a hipster for this one

Coming up next: hopefully more on the Navalny gig, a short trip to Rostov, a Russian rap concert, and a month late celebration of St. Patty’s Day. Stay tuned.